Church recycler seeks new use for wrecked sanctuaries

Salvager Bob Beaty, with the cornerstone at the demolished Our Mother of Sorrows parish in Bridgeport, Montgomery County.



(CORRECTION 2/22: The Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced the closing of Our Mother of Sorrows in 2015, but the property was sold by the surviving local parish, Sacred Heart, and not by the Archdiocese. See Update below.) 

They didn't expect the old church to have so much steel in it.

As the excavating machine from Jim Johnson's Tamco Construction,  trucked from Pipersville, knocked down Our Mother of Sorrows — church and school, rectory and convent — for a developer to replace the Bridgeport parish with hilltop homes, salvager Bob Beaty was impressed by how immigrants had built the place to last.

"We thought it would be mostly wood. But it's steel," Beaty said. The vast rubbled yard held beams stacked like bones, bricks, concrete blocks, marble, pipes. Johnson's crew left a stone frame, carved with "Ave Maria," for Beaty to cart to his shop on American Street in Philadelphia.

Beaty sold columns from Transfiguration in West Philly to a Kennett-area collector, and recycled the Divine Lorraine when the hotel was gutted among other treasures, sacred and profane.

It's been 89 years since the Rev. Joseph C. Tomko stood with his Slovak flock on this hill to consecrate the sanctuary under Cardinal Dennis Dougherty, that canny, tireless builder of jewel-box churches, schools that saved taxpayers millions, and convents and rectories run by men and women he inspired.

That day, they messaged the future, piling papers and coins into a copper box, into the hollow church cornerstone, sealed behind the carved year: 1928.

But if church leaders thought their work was done, it was only started. Like many others, the parish prospered for a generation, two, then shrank. Old folks moved on; kids who found other ways to center their lives weren't replaced.

When Archbishop Charles J. Chaput sold the place, they left the cornerstone. The day Johnson and Beaty opened it, the archbishop was on a California radio show, complaining how the press is so hard on President Trump.

UPDATE: Kenneth A. Gavin, spokesman for the Archdiocese, writes: "The Archbishop did not 'sell the place' as you asserted. The former church building was the property of the parish after the merger. It was never the property of the Archdiocese so the Archbishop could not have sold it.

"Parish buildings are not the property of the Archdiocese just as parish finances are separate from Archdiocesan finances. When parish mergers take place, all assets and debts of the parishes involved, are assumed by the newly formed parish. That was the case in Bridgeport just like all other instances." 

EARLIER: What message did the old folks send? No words: "The papers were disintegrated. You couldn't read them. There was a silver dollar." Also a Mercury dime, pennies.

"You ever read how they built the great cathedrals? It's like the church is doing a reversal," Beaty said. "Dismantling these places for the bones." 

Beaty knows "living saints" — old activist Father John McNamee and Msgr. Michael Doyle of Camden. He honors the memory of Father Al Smith, who set him straight at Monsignor Bonner High, and John McShain, the "Man Who Built Washington" and many churches. "We were builders. Now, closers. So sad," he said.

What has happened under the last archbishops, who scrap the temples and centers the people built under the energetic old prelates (Dougherty, St. John Neumann, Bishop Francis Kenrick)? "There's not the vision," Beaty said. "Why not transform a place like this into something that continues the spirituality? I guess they needed the money to settle all those lawsuits" against abuser priests church leaders failed to stop. 

His Beaty American warehouse is full of pews. More churches will close. "I'd like to start a line of furniture made from this reclaimed material," he said. His firm's motto is "Amor signatur in hac domo" — "Love lives in this house."